-- by Hera Cha
Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/9-1682) has rightly come to be regarded as the finest and most versatile landscapist of the "heroic age" of Dutch painting, namely the third quarter of the 17th century. Ruisdael was born in Haarlem to an artistic family. The son of Isaack van Ruisdael, a frame maker, dealer, and occasional painter, he was also the nephew of the distinguished landscapist Salomon van Ruisdael. Not only was Ruisdael a technically and iconographically masterful painter, he was also equally gifted in other artistic media such as drawing and etching. Though Ruisdael was most famous for his landscape paintings, he also produced a small, but impressive collection of landscape etchings. His print The Rustic Cottage epitomizes the versatile and distinctive characteristics of Ruisdael's printmaking oeuvre.
Jacob van Ruisdael's etchings are not nearly as well-known as his paintings and drawings. Indeed, Ruisdael's corpus of etchings is very small and impressions of most of them are exceedingly scarce. To this day, there is a total of only thirteen prints attributed to Ruisdael. It is abundantly clear that Ruisdael decided to try his hand at etching at the beginning of his career. Two of his prints are dated 1646, the year he appears on the artistic scene in Haarlem as a seventeen or eighteen year old artist. However, Ruisdael's best-known etchings are a group of four landscapes that were most likely designed as a set and are datable to the first half of the 1650s. "The Rustic Cottage" is a part of this well-known series including the prints The Great Beech, The Cottage on a Hill and The Forest Marsh. Art historians have determined that these four etchings were conceived as a set because of the similarity in size, style and technique they all share.
Apart from the visual evidence of his existing etchings, very little is known about Ruisdael's activity as a printmaker. As Ruisdael scholar Seymour Slive has noted, it is not known who taught him the technique of etching or elements of the graphic vocabulary he was able to employ with impressive competence in his earliest prints of 1646. Slive has observed that given his immediate facility in the etching technique, Ruisdael's decision never again to touch an etcher's needle after 1655 is puzzling.
Dutch Baroque art is characterized by extreme naturalism and an innovative realistic rendering of nature was one of Ruisdael's artistic trademarks. This intense naturalism is most apparent in his The Rustic Cottage. In this landscape etching, Ruisdael has depicted a decrepit cottage, a flowing stream, a bridge and a lone human figure within the rustic environment of the Dutch countryside. Ruisdael is attempting to capture the physicality of nature through his creative manipulation of the etching technique. For example, using thick hatch marks, he achieved an extremely naturalistic feeling of the rough craggy texture of rocks. For objects with a more delicate texture and structure such as leaves, Ruisdael used lighter, thinner hatched lines with drypoint. Ruisdael most likely resorted to repeated multiple bitings of his etched plates, a method used by printmakers of his day to obtain a more detailed range between light and dark tonalities.
An artistic characteristic found in both Ruisdael's paintings and drawings is their loose, sketchy mode of execution. In his etchings, Ruisdael attempted to approximate the sketchiness and loose appearance of his paintings and drawings. This is especially evident in his The Rustic Cottage etching, in which the stylus was handled with the fluid motion of a brush, resulting in wiry, gestural strokes.
Ruisdael utilized a variety of innovative etching methods in order to recreate the radical naturalistic effects of his painted landscapes. Widely spaced dots and irregular small hatched lines achieve the effect of sparkling sunlight on rustling leaves in The Rustic Cottage. Moreover, the definition of forms in space are more clearly articulated and the foliage seems airier in this print than in Ruisdael's other etchings. Ruisdael also demonstrates a remarkable range of tonal values and control of the spatial relations of the dense shrubbery. The artist's emphasis on the growth of powerful natural forms in his landscape views is keenly felt in the predominant trees in The Rustic Cottage.
Ruisdael's "The Rustic Cottage" is not merely an empirical landscape scene, as there is a complex allegorical meaning to the etching. On one signifying level, Ruisdael has created the symbolic theme of vanitas within this etching, which serves as a moralizing reminder to the viewer of the fleeting nature of earthly life. The dead tree juxtaposed with the rushing stream symbolizes the powerful passage of time, which eventually vanquishes everything. While Ruisdael is emphasizing that even nature is not exempt from the forces of time, the decrepit form of the cottage also stresses the destructive impact of time on human achievements. However, the rushing stream that dominates the left side of the etching also signifies everlasting life and vitality in Christian emblematic terms. Half submerged in the rushing stream, the dead tree is surrounded by thriving shoots and foliage. The juxtaposition of the dead tree against the lush flora and the flow of the stream symbolizes Christian resurrection. In emphasizing the ongoing cycle of life, Ruisdael incorporates a hopeful Christian dimension into the infinite presence of nature.
Jacob van Ruisdael made an astonishingly early and impressive career and name for himself during the Dutch Baroque era. Ruisdael was an exceptionally gifted etcher and The Rustic Cottage represents the brief, but distinguished phase of his activity as a printmaker. Moreover, The Rustic Cottage reflects Ruisdael's abilities to adapt to his printmaking oeuvre the radical naturalistic qualities of his empirical landscape paintings, which helped to further revolutionize the technical and stylistic capabilities of 17th century etching.